A short walk from the tony designer stores along Canton Road and the opulent Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, a rundown, 17-story building called Chungking Mansions spreads over a block—home to 4,000 people who constitute an international brigade of buyers and sellers.
They can be found at all hours under neon glare, ferreting through this world of no-frills hotels, restaurants offering African stews and Indian curries, and shops that sell everything from whiskey in a glass to saris and prayer mats.
When British traders arrived by frigate in the 1800s, looking to swap an embarrassment of Indian opium packed in wooden chests, they spied the granite island that would become Hong Kong on their way up the Pearl River estuary to Guangzhou.
Now a Chinese special administrative region, it is being remade yet again under diamond pressure.
And increasingly this city of over seven million inhabitants floats on a growing sense of unease, a discomfort that stands in direct opposition to the heady, auspicious days when Hong Kong was one of Asia’s great business capitals. You can feel the vapors of this unease everywhere in the city, like the mist that rises from the harbor or from steaming streets at dawn, a mix of confusion and fear and the sharpening premonition of erasure.
Faced with Mao Zedong’s nationalization drive, Chinese industrialists pulled up roots and reestablished themselves in Hong Kong, and a wave of refugees poured in, looking for work.
A robust capitalism emerged, turning the city into a prodigious exporter of goods and a place of such unregulated ease that it invited money from all comers.
Hong Kong is a floating city: It floats between worlds, on fluctuating currency exchange rates and IPOs, real estate speculation, and the yuan of Chinese mainlanders, who come in droves on a wave of new wealth.